Regional Reviews: Boston
It's A Wonderful Life
The strength of the production is the cohesiveness of the company, lending credibility to the idea that Bedford Falls is a close-knit, small community. Nearly all of the actors play generic townspeople, in addition to their named roles, to swell the population. However, Stewart Evan Smith (George) and Marge Dunn (Mary Bailey) play only their leading roles, allowing them to maintain their focus on building those characters. Smith traverses George's story arc gracefully, starting as the hopeful young man with big dreams who gradually becomes weighed down by family responsibilities and the burdens of business. Dunn's performance is marked by warmth and intelligence, infusing Mary with a quiet strength that supports her husband and holds the family together.
A key gender-flip turns Old Man Potter into a Mrs., and Margaret Ann Brady (also Ma Bailey) comes about as close to making it work as anybody could. She wears brass knuckles inside a pair of velvet gloves and crafts a villain worthy of our fear and loathing, but the idea of Potter just seems more in keeping with a crotchety, nasty old man. The reliable William Gardiner (also Pa Bailey) is a gem as Clarence, the Angel Second Class hoping to earn his wings by saving George from suicide. One of Boston's great character actors, Bob Mussett inhabits the befuddled Uncle Billy, drawing both sympathy and exasperation, and Bryan Miner (also Mr. Martini) is a hoot in his moments as Mary's mother (his beard notwithstanding), clutching his pearls, as it were.
The play is jazzed up a bit with musical interludes; the musical supervision and vocal arrangements are by Bethany Aiken. Ensemble members Laura Chowenhill, Jeff Marcus, and Francis Xavier Norton step out of character to add piano and guitar accompaniment. Scenic designer Sarah Rozene suggests the town with a skyline silhouette on the backdrop and features a large bridge as the centerpiece of the set. Lighting designer Kayleigha Zawacki effectively moves the action from reality to fantasy and back again, and Chelsea Kerl's costumes are evocative of the small town 1940s.
It's A Wonderful Life runs about two hours, with one intermission, and moves along briskly. There are some wonderful, heartfelt scenes, especially between Smith and Dunn, but the overall pace feels too fast, as if they don't have time to slow down and appreciate one moment before moving on to the next. Capra's heartwarming story is meant to make us stop and look at what really matters in life, to feel and express gratitude, especially to those we love. It finally happens at the end of the play when everyone gathers around the Christmas tree to sing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and Clarence gets his wings.
It's A Wonderful Life, through December 23, 2018, at Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street, Stoneham MA. Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.greaterbostonstage.org.
Adapted from Frank Capra's original screenplay by Weylin Symes, Co-Directed by Tonasia Jones and Tyler Rosati; Scenic Designer, Sarah Rozene; Costume Designer, Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Designer, Kayleigha Zawacki; Production Stage Manager, Christine Lomaka; Musical Supervision & Vocal Arrangements, Bethany Aiken
Cast (in alphabetical order): Margaret Ann Brady, Laura Chowenhill, Marge Dunn, Cate Galante, William Gardiner, Linus Latta Givliana, Jackson Hughes-Page, David Jiles Jr., Jeff Marcus, Elainy Mata, Melydia McCall, Bryan Miner, Bob Mussett, Francis Norton, Jenna Lea Scott, Stewart Evan Smith, Fiona Simeqi